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Dashing through the snow: Inside Minnesota State Mankato’s record 27-play drive

December 5, 2018

The No. 1 team in Division II trailed by 10 points in a playoff game Saturday when it got the ball at its own 3-yard line, with snow falling so heavily that players couldn’t see the opposite end of the field.

Minnesota State Mankato football coach Todd Hoffner told his offensive coordinator to run the ball. No-brainer.

The Mavericks ran it. Then ran it again. And again. And again.

“We kept running and running,” Hoffner said. “Next thing you know, we’re in the end zone.”

The drive lasted 27 plays — 26 consecutive runs, followed by a 5-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal. Time of possession: 12 minutes, 9 seconds.

Twenty … seven … plays.

In one possession. In whiteout conditions. With their season on the line.

The Mavericks rode that remarkable drive that started early in the third quarter and lasted into the fourth to a 13-10 comeback victory over Tarleton (Texas) State to advance to the semifinals. The Mavericks play host to No. 2 Ferris State on Saturday in a clash of undefeated powerhouses, with the winner advancing to the DII championship game Dec. 15 in McKinney, Texas.

The drive that kept their season alive goes down as one for the ages.

“I’ve been involved with college football teams for 30 years, and I’ve never heard of that,” Hoffner said.

Nobody has. An NCAA spokesman said the 27-play drive is believed to be the longest on record in college football history for any level classification (FBS, FCS, DII or DIII).

A 27-play drive without a single penalty is the football equivalent of spotting Bigfoot. It almost seems mathematically impossible, considering the field is 100 yards in length.

The Mavericks averaged 3.6 yards per play on the drive. They converted five third downs and two fourth downs.

“It’s like old-school football,” Hoffner said. “Back to the leather helmet days.”

Junior tailback Nate Gunn handled most of the work with 18 carries on that drive alone. He finished with a school-record 50 carries, amassing 261 yards rushing and the game-winning touchdown later in the fourth quarter.

He had some minor bruises and scrapes but otherwise felt fine the next day.

“Coach believes in me,” Gunn said. “I kind of knew what was expected out of me.”

The conditions necessitated a one-dimensional approach. A snowstorm arrived at halftime, dumping four inches on the field in the second half. Wind gusts registered at 22 miles per hour.

Gunn had to squint when he ran to keep snow out of his eyes. Workers cleared yard lines with shovels throughout the half. Players chipped in and kicked snow aside when officials brought out the first-down marker to measure a spot.

Tarleton State brought its own heaters to keep players warm on the sideline. The Mavericks elected not to use heaters. Was Hoffner channeling his inner Bud Grant?

“They didn’t even ask for them,” he said. “I don’t know if they were scared to ask for them or what.”

Nah, Gunn said his teammates simply wanted to embrace being a cold-weather team.

“Heaters didn’t even pop up in the conversation,” he said.

Gunn shed his gloves at one point because they became waterlogged and he worried about fumbling. His hand towel also was soaked. His fingers were numb.

Tarleton State called timeout with 37 seconds left in the third quarter after the 23rd play of the drive, 16 of them runs by Gunn.

“I needed a drink of water,” Gunn said. “I’m huffing and puffing. But when we were out there, I was perfectly fine. It was crazy.”

The Mavericks could see fatigue in Tarleton State’s defenders. They were huffing and puffing harder.

Minnesota State Mankato ran the same handful of plays out of a few different formations on the drive. Nothing fancy. Two tight ends, shotgun formation. Over and over.

“You get to a point where the kids are giddy,” Hoffner said. “They see another first down and go wild.”

Tarleton State held Gunn to 1 yard on third-and-goal from the 6. Hoffner faced a decision: go for it, or attempt a field goal. Easy call in his mind.

“I felt touchdowns were needed,” he said.

Junior quarterback Ryan Schlichte completed a 5-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Shane Zylstra — younger brother of Vikings wideout Brandon Zylstra — on a rub route. A snowball catch.

“The craziest drive ever,” Hoffner said. “But what a tide-turner.”

That cut the deficit to 10-7. The Mavericks still trailed when they took possession at their own 24-yard line with 3:14 remaining, but completed their comeback on a 13-yard touchdown run by Gunn with 1:47 left. He made a nifty cutback move at the line and got a key block by Schlichte on the edge.

That scoring drive lasted only seven plays and 76 yards. A breeze compared to the other one.

One more victory, and the Mavericks will play in the DII title game for the second time since 2014. Their shot at a dream ending remains alive thanks to what Hoffner calls a “miracle drive.” He even has a name for it:

Three yards and a cloud of snow.

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com

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